Read: ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ and the quest to understand Bobby Fischer
Another chess master who was central to the Fischer story also died last month: Shelby Lyman. Though not a world-class player, Lyman did more to popularize chess in America than anyone not named Bobby Fischer. He was teaching chess in New York when one of his students, a TV executive, tapped him to host a PBS show covering the Fischer-Spassky match. Lyman proved a natural showman, explaining densely complicated chess positions to TV viewers, many of whom thought of a fork only as an eating utensil. (In chess, it’s a move where a single piece makes at least two simultaneous attacks.) Like tons of other kids at the time, I’d turn to Channel 13 in New York that summer and follow Lyman’s commentary move by move, sparking a lifelong interest in the game. After becoming a journalist, I wrote about Lyman, and from time to time we’d talk about the match.
“I had no concept of TV,” he told me. “I never watched television. I had no idea how a talk show host should act.” But, he added, “chess is a dramatic event. You could hear the swords clang on the shields with every move. They went at each other. The average person is turned onto chess when it’s presented right. Trying to figure out the next move is a fascinating adventure—an adventure people can get into.”
With his bushy brown hair and endearing miscues (in that low-tech era, he’d fumble for the pieces he used to shove onto demonstration boards), Lyman became a mini-celebrity, while interest in the ancient game boomed. In the year before the match, membership in the U.S. Chess Federation was about 27,000. A year after Fischer won the title, it had more than doubled, to about 59,000. “Shelby was the face of chess in America,” Bruce Pandolfini, the coach and author who was played by the actor Ben Kingsley in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, told me.
The loss of Benko and Lyman draws the curtain on an era in American chess that produced some of the game’s richest personalities and most sparkling play. The players and teachers who dominated the firmament in the mid-20th century were the game’s greatest generation. They bested a Soviet pipeline of grand masters who once had a stranglehold on the title.
One by one, they’re dying out. Fischer is gone, having died in Iceland in 2008, at age 64. Bill Lombardy, who served as Fischer’s second during the 1972 match and was a world-class grand master in his own right, died two years ago, at 79. Larry Evans, who helped Fischer write the influential chess book My 60 Memorable Games, passed away in 2010, at age 78. Robert Byrne, who in 1963 lost to Fischer in one of the most artful chess games ever played and later wrote a chess column for The New York Times, died six years ago, at 84.
There may never be another generation like it, or a set of geopolitical circumstances that would make a chess match quite so absorbing. “He was a supernova,” Hikaru Nakamura, a 31-year-old American who has ranked among the world’s top five players, told me of Fischer. “It’s something that will never happen again.” No other American has won the world title since Fischer forfeited his in 1975. No chess personality has broken through to a mass audience like Lyman. No nation seems to stoke America’s competitive fires quite like the old Soviet Union. “What the women’s national soccer team has done in the last few years is what these chess players did during the Cold War in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s,” Joseph Ponterotto, a counseling-psychology professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Education and the author of A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer, told me. “There was new blood. We were standing on the world stage, and Russia was not going to dominate. Benko was part of that team that led to Bobby Fischer taking down the Russian chess empire.”